Viewpoint: Where is the commitment?

Not enough being done to help individuals obtain HIV/AIDS drugs

By Jeffrey R. Lewis

America's commitment to helping tens of thousands of people suffering from HIV/AIDS obtain access to the medications they need to survive has failed. Instead, the White House, members of Congress, governors and state legislators have created a new life-threatening epidemic: functional malaise.

Why is there a problem when we have AIDS Drug Assistance Programs - a system of federally funded, state-run programs to supply low-income, uninsured individuals with access to lifesaving HIV/AIDS medications? Many states today face massive budget shortfalls and must cut services. At least 14 state ADAP programs have gone so far as to institute patient waiting lists. Nationally, more than 3,337 people living with HIV/AIDS now sit on waiting lists for essential medications. Both Ohio and Utah have taken people out of their programs because of eligibility restrictions.

The White House and Congress may boast about the passage of health care reform legislation, but it fails to protect thousands of Americans suffering from some of the most serious illnesses. This is an affront to the LGBT community, and all Americans in need.

Despite more than $800 million set aside by the federal government to help those diagnosed with HIV/AIDS obtain crucial medication, thousands of seriously ill and impoverished Americans still go without the drugs that could save their lives. The result? Skyrocketing hospital costs as these patients, who are much sicker for lack of proper treatment, end up in emergency rooms receiving medical care at the highest possible price.

What's more, for AIDS patients who need a variety of drugs, the effort to obtain free drugs from programs run by the pharmaceutical manufacturers can be overwhelming, due to complicated paperwork processes, different income-eligibility determinations by each manufacturer, lack of a single entry point and other hurdles. In other words, budget crises, combined with bureaucracy and wrapped in a blanket of indifference, have made this problem both severe and life threatening.

To bridge this gap, the Heinz Family Philanthropies, Abbott, Merck, Tibotec Therapeutics and Welvista created a market-based approach that underscores how philanthropy, business and nonprofits can work together to create solutions to vexing health problems.

The one-stop solution created through this partnership works quite simply: It eliminates all enrollment forms, making enrollment automatic for anyone certified on an ADAP waiting list.

Patients on the waiting lists who need access to no-cost Abbott, Merck or Tibotec HIV medications need only request that their state ADAP program representative contact Welvista. HIV/AIDS meds will be shipped directly to the patient or to a medical provider if so preferred. Program costs are covered by grants provided by all the participants and administered by Welvista. This market-based solution is a national initiative designed to help patients in any state.

Unfortunately, Abbott, Merck and Tibotec are the only three pharmaceutical manufacturers that produce HIV/AIDS medications currently participating in this program. The entry of all the other pharmaceutical manufacturers would be greatly encouraged and welcomed, but the larger question is, why do the other pharmaceutical manufacturers refuse to help?

We are driven by a simple belief that the forces of the marketplace can drive the kind of instrumental change that government cannot or will not accomplish on its own. The need is great and the time for leadership is now!

Jeffrey Lewis is the president of the Heinz Family Philanthropies and can be reached at jlewis@heinzoffice.org.

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